The Betty White of American Politics: Why Bernie’s Young Fans Love Him

Why his young fans like him

This illustration can only be used with the Nora Caplan-Bricker piece that originally ran in the 6/20/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
Ryan Inzana
Nora Caplan-Bricker
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Nora Caplan-Bricker
June 19, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

Brendan Eprile re­mem­bers the first time he saw Bernie Sanders on TV. Eprile was an 8-year-old grow­ing up in Ver­mont, and he re­calls “be­ing amazed, be­cause I un­der­stood what he was talk­ing about, un­like all the oth­er politi­cians.” Sanders was on his soap­box about Ir­aq — or maybe it was eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity? In any case, the fam­ously blunt in­de­pend­ent from Bur­l­ing­ton had him riv­eted. Jo­nah Ra­gir has a sim­il­ar re­col­lec­tion. When he was young, he says, his grand­moth­er was watch­ing Sanders on C-SPAN in her Cali­for­nia liv­ing room. “I asked my grandma who he was, be­cause he didn’t sound like the oth­er guys who were speak­ing,” Ra­gir says. “He wasn’t ‘bor­ing’ and he wasn’t ‘ly­ing,’ were the words I used as a little kid.”

When Sanders an­nounced in late April that he was run­ning for pres­id­ent, Eprile, now a rising ju­ni­or at Ober­lin Col­lege, and Ra­gir, who at­tends Santa Mon­ica Col­lege, were among the stu­dents who con­tac­ted his cam­paign to vo­lun­teer. (As of early June, Bernie 2016 told me it had heard from schools in al­most every state.) As the most lib­er­al can­did­ate in the race, Sanders is, in many ways, the nat­ur­al can­did­ate of the cam­pus left. He is also, however, a no­tori­ously tetchy sep­tua­gen­ari­an. How, I wondered, do the young­est gen­er­a­tion of Bernie sup­port­ers re­late to him? What ex­actly is driv­ing their en­thu­si­asm for this throw­back product of the 1960s?

Cer­tainly, his po­s­i­tions on the is­sues are part of the equa­tion. Sanders, like most left-wing stu­dents, is an­ti­war, anti-money-in-polit­ics — and anti-stu­dent-loan-debt, which he has pro­posed to cur­tail by mak­ing col­lege free. “As a per­son in his 70s, he’s more in tune with our gen­er­a­tion’s plight than I would ar­gue Hil­lary Clin­ton is, and even Mar­tin O’Mal­ley at this point, and for sure the right wing,” says Adam Schwartz, a stu­dent at the Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin, Madis­on. They like him on so­cial is­sues as well — even though Sanders re­gards those as very sec­ond­ary to his eco­nom­ic mes­sage. One stu­dent after an­oth­er noted Sanders’s long-stand­ing sup­port of mar­riage equal­ity as com­pared with Hil­lary Clin­ton’s slow “evol­u­tion.” Plus, his car­bon-tax pro­pos­al has en­deared him to the en­vir­on­ment­al crowd.

Sanders is also the kind of politi­cian stu­dents tend to em­brace be­cause they see him as above polit­ics. “He’s not play­ing the role of a politi­cian, but of a per­son who wants to do good,” says Eliza­beth Lee of Middle­bury Col­lege. Where most pols “in­tro­duce le­gis­la­tion just to get the brownie points,” says Schwartz, Sanders “stands by it, and then he floats it re­peatedly.” Nikolaus Hofer, a stu­dent at Prin­ceton Uni­versity, vo­lun­teered for Barack Obama in 2012 and New Jer­sey Sen­at­or Cory Book­er in 2013 — but says he feels let down by both former idols. “The prob­lem was, they’re politi­cians,” he ex­plains. “They’re trad­ing things for each oth­er, bal­an­cing one thing against an­oth­er.” Sanders, he says, is “not try­ing to swim through all this muck — he’s on a surf­board cruis­ing right over it. I love the guy.”

Sanders on a surf­board? “I love the guy”? It wasn’t just Hofer: In talk­ing to Sanders’s young sup­port­ers, it be­came clear that their en­thu­si­asm for him ex­ten­ded well bey­ond his po­s­i­tions. The stu­dents who sup­port him don’t just agree with him: They seem to think that he, per­son­ally, is kind of awe­some.

The com­par­is­on between Sanders and Obama is, it turns out, in­struct­ive. Sanders is in most sig­ni­fic­ant ways the op­pos­ite of the can­did­ate young pro­gress­ives fell for eight years ago. It’s true that Obama, like Sanders today, ran in 2008 as a kind of anti-politi­cian, but he was non­ethe­less the con­sum­mate mod­ern can­did­ate: young, pol­ished, so­cial-me­dia-ready. Sanders, mean­while, is dour, pess­im­ist­ic, and not the kind of guy one ex­pects to share a laugh with — un­less maybe it’s over the words “hope and change.” Wit­tingly or not, Sanders seems to be join­ing a small cadre of oth­er no-bull­shit old people — think Betty White or Chuck Grass­ley — whose per­ceived lack of guile res­on­ates with di­git­al nat­ives. He’s “dis­arm­ingly straight­for­ward,” says Frank Fritz, a stu­dent at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity. “He’s not try­ing to win the game of who acts the most pres­id­en­tial or has the best me­dia team. He’s good on so­cial me­dia be­cause he’s hon­est about what he thinks.”

Sanders’s groom­ing habits are a key part of his charm. One stu­dent after an­oth­er praised his white hair, which is in­fam­ous for lift­ing off his head in struck-by-light­ning-level dis­ar­ray. A guy that un­con­cerned with sur­faces, the stu­dents ar­gue, must be worthy of their trust. He “doesn’t care about his im­age,” says Hofer; he is “clearly not con­cerned about keep­ing up an ap­peal.” Sanders might be a 73-year-old man, “but at the end of the day, it seems he’s the most youth­ful can­did­ate out there,” Hofer says. “That he’s un­kempt is a draw for people,” says Ra­gir. “I know in my life — I’m 21 — I’ve seen Clin­ton, Bush, Obama. These are people who just look per­fect. Everything about them is per­fect. And Bernie is this real per­son.” He “comes off a little grungy,” says Lee. “It works for him.”

It even seems to help that Sanders is so un­likely to make it to the Oval Of­fice. “You know, our gen­er­a­tion is sort of the hip­ster gen­er­a­tion, and the school I go to, people are very in­to not be­ing main­stream,” says Eprile. “I think, hon­estly, a lot of people don’t think he’s go­ing to win and like that in a weird way. “… He’s the edgy can­did­ate.” The sen­at­or, con­curs Uni­versity of Texas of the Per­mi­an Basin gradu­ate Timothy McDaniel, “is kind of re­bel­li­ous.” Like a fixed-gear bike or a col­lec­tion of vinyl, Sanders is trend­ily ana­log and im­prac­tic­al. Says Eprile: “I do hear a lot of people say, ‘Oh, he’s so cool.‘“Š”

What We're Following See More »
POMPEO FACES AN UNFAVORABLE COMMITTEE VOTE TODAY
Manchin Will Vote To Confirm Pompeo
17 minutes ago
THE DETAILS
WARNED OF “GREAT WHITE DEATH” IN EUROPE
Bolton Chaired Anti-Muslim Think Tank
1 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Until last month, National Security Advisor John Bolton chaired the New York-based nonprofit Gatestone Institute, which promoted "misleading and false anti-Muslim news." The group published articles warning of a looming “jihadist takeover” of Europe leading to a “Great White Death," alleged that “no-go zones” existing in Europe due to violence from Muslim migrants, and published one story called: “Rape Capital of the West," which focused on Somali migrants in Sweden. The research, which was occasionally amplified by Russian media outlets and Twitter bots, also criticized mainstream European leaders for failing to confront the so-called crisis.

Source:
PROTESTORS DEMAND ELECTIONS
Armenian Prime Minister Resigns
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan has resigned following days of large-scale street protests against him." Sargsyan had previously served 10 years as President, and protestors accused him of clinging to power. "In 2015, Armenians voted in a referendum to shift the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system, stripping powers from the president and giving them to the prime minister." Sargsyan's government has also been criticized for failing to ease tensions with Azerbaijan and Turkey, and "for its close ties to Russia, whose leader Vladimir Putin also moved between the positions of president and prime minister to maintain his grip on power."

Source:
START OF THREE-DAY VISIT
French President Macron Visits White House
2 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

President Trump "welcomes French President Emmanuel Macron the White House" today to begin a three-day state visit "expected to be dominated by U.S.-European differences on the Iran nuclear deal and souring trade relations." Trump has vowed to scrap the Iran nuclear deal "unless European allies strengthen it by mid-May." After meetings on Monday and Tuesday, Macron will address Congress on Wednesday, "the anniversary of the day that French General Charles de Gaulle addressed a Joint Session of Congress in 1960."

Source:
HIS GUNS GIVEN TO FATHER
Tennessee Waffle House Shooter Had Firearm Card Revoked
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

"A sheriff in Illinois says Travis Reinking," the suspect in a mass shooting that killed four people in a Tennessee Waffle House on Sunday, had his state firearms card revoked last year by state police, but that "his guns were given to his father with the promise that they wouldn’t be shared with his son ... Huston says Reinking’s father has a valid firearm ownership card, and his officers didn’t believe they had any authority to seize the weapons." Police are still searching for the 29-year-old suspect.

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login